A Moment of Truth: After Four Years in the EU, Croatia Finally May Protect Whistleblowers

by Dino Jahic
Center for Investigative Journalism of Serbia (CINS)

Joining the EU in 2013 required Croatia to embrace wholesale legislative reforms in order to meet European standards. Four years later, however, the country still lacks a specific law to protect whistleblowers. Nor does it have a designated public agency to receive and investigate whistleblower disclosures and retaliation complaints.

The result is that Croatian whistleblowers are in a much worse position than those in neighboring countries that are not in the EU, such as Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia – all of which have moved to protect whistleblowers in recent years.

Croatia’s poor record is at odds with public opinion. Sixty-eight percent of citizens think whistleblowers should be supported, according to a 2017 survey by the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC) and the NGO Blueprint for Free Speech. This is tied for the highest figure among seven countries surveyed.

The stalemate could change soon. In June 2017 whistleblower protection was included in the Action plan of Croatia’s official Anti-Corruption Strategy, which laid down a goal to pass a law by end of next year. And, in September, the Justice Ministry has invited NGOs representatives to join a working group tasked with drafting the law.

Though calling this a positive development, Ivan Novosel of Human Rights House Zagreb said it is too early to tell how much whistleblower rights actually will be improved. He said the law should be based on the highest international standards, while taking into account the experiences of other countries – and even enhancing some of their provisions.

“But that’s just the first step,” says Novosel. “Afterwards, the law should be implemented – and this opens up a whole new set of challenges and problems.”

Anti-corruption efforts stall after joining EU

Building momentum to pass a whistleblower law in the Western Balkans’ only EU country has been a struggle, to say the least. A 2013 citizens’ initiative produced a draft law that did not come to fruition. The Justice Ministry has been reviewing the country’s whistleblower provisions at least since 2014, with little to show for it.

One hurdle has been officials’ unwillingness to acknowledge that there is a problem. In a response to questions from the Southeast Europe Coalition on Whistleblower Protection, the Justice Ministry explained that whistleblower protections already exist in a series of regulations.

While this may be true on paper, the protections functionally are all-but meaningless. Shards of law scattered among criminal, trade, labor, civil servant, classified data and witness protection codes touch on issues including protection against dismissals, discrimination, mobbing and a right to anonymity. But they have provided minimal if any benefits. Moreover, the Justice Ministry said statistics on whistleblower disclosures are not maintained. This renders analyzing current policies impossible.

Duje Prkut is an anti-corruption expert with GONG, a Croatian NGO that monitors elections, advocates for anti-corruption and transparency reforms, and encourages citizens to participate in political life. He said that when Croatia entered the EU, innovations and reforms in many areas stopped – in particular, anti-corruption efforts. “Reform measures imposed by the EU, which introduced strong improvements in preventing and suppressing corruption, are substituted with individually developed, vague measures whose real anti-corruption effects are nonexistent or questionable.”

Davorka Budimir, president of Transparency International (TI) Croatia, which has worked independently from Transparency International since 2016, agrees. “It looks like the fight against corruption fell into the background at the moment Croatia entered the EU. People who reported irregularities only damaged themselves and their families, while corrupted officials undisturbedly continue to hold public office and win elections.”

Weak rights and lonely fights

A positive sign came in 2015 when Vesna Balenović, among Croatia’s most prominent whistleblowers, became commissioner for whistleblowers under President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović. But she was fired a few months later when Grabar-Kitarović learned that her NGO received an unreported donation from the oil company INA.

It was while working for INA in 2001 that Balenović reported wrongdoing and faced harsh retaliation, including dismissal and lawsuits. She said the real problem was not the donation, which could not have undermined her NGO’s credibility and impartiality, but the fact that crimes at INA were never prosecuted. She accused Grabar-Kitarović of appointing her commissioner only for appearances’ sake, without any real intention to help whistleblowers.

Other high-profile whistleblowers in Croatia have made disclosures ranging from financial irregularities to corruption of public officials to public health threats. Most have faced some kind of retribution.

Experts agree that the key problem has been a lack of political will to solve the problem.

Prkut of GONG said political elites routinely resist passing laws that could change a favorable status quo. “It’s similar with whistleblowers. Creating a framework to incentivize whistleblowers would strongly alter the existing political practice and the way of managing state administration and state-owned companies.”

Prkut said reporting wrongdoing in Croatia is not seen as an act of civic responsibility but is more perceived as a “futile clash with the windmills” – a lone fight against the system.

TI’s Budimir said that after whistleblowers report corruption, they typically are isolated, marginalized and fired, while in extreme cases they suffer a range of health and personal problems. This compromises the fight against corruption.

She says the lack of timely, efficient and transparent court proceedings suggests that corruption ultimately can pay off. After delays and symbolic sentences, guilty parties often are ordered to perform community service rather being sentenced to prison and paying monetary fines. This weakens penalties for offenders and saps the credibility of judges, prosecutors and the courts themselves.

Among the progressive-minded reforms suggested by Prkut is a mediation system for whistleblowers and employers, which would eliminate long and uncertain court proceedings. He also warned that whistleblowing should not become a tool for political and personal agendas.

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